Solidly Connected

Flying home from Colorado to California last week, I had a window seat over the wing, the perfect spot for observing the man who held the two red, plastic signaling devices aloft and walked backward, giving the pilots directions to back the plane up. It was cold in Denver—the wings needed de-icing—and it occurred to me that this man was willing to stand outside in below freezing temperatures so that I could go “up in the sky,” as the mom in front of me told her daughter.

I thought about all the people it took to make that flight happen: the engineers who designed the plane, the factory workers who assembled it, the mechanics who kept it running, the pilot, the flight attendants, the air traffic controllers, everyone who made the airport run, from the TSA agents to the baggage handlers to the custodians. All of them are willing to do what they do for me.

Granted, they don’t wake up in the morning and say to themselves, “Oh, Rachel’s going to be on this flight. I’m so excited to help her out.” They may or may not think about the people they’re serving at all, but consciously or not, they scan boarding passes and mop floors for me. That’s astonishing.

People kill chickens, wrap them in plastic, and ship them across the country for me. They test toothpaste formulations in laboratories and design packaging for me.

I have a tendency to get abstract about this concept that we are all connected, but it’s as solid as it gets. We do nothing on our own. Every moment of our lives is supported by countless other humans, animals, and plants, all of whose existence relies on the Earth and the sun.

And we’re connected through time, too. If those two brothers in Kitty Hawk hadn’t been fascinated with flight, if this planet had formed farther from this star, if our universe had expanded any faster or slower.

Generosity pervades our lives to a degree our minds cannot hold. All we can do is recognize it and bow.

Tuning into the Divine Frequency

Life would be so much easier if fulfillment could be found in exterior things. The world’s most amazing piece of chocolate cake exists somewhere, so find it and bam! you’re done. Mission accomplished. Life well lived. Carefree from here on out.

But nothing outside of our selves—space intended—will ever satisfy us, a reality that can cause a lot of joy or a lot of suffering.

So many things seem as if they describe or comprise our selves but don’t: our accomplishments, our responsible-ness, our moral conduct, others’ opinions of us. Sometimes, though, we really mess up all of these things—I mean really, or at least I do—and so they can’t be who we are.

What’s left when everything our society teaches us to value or work toward is not us? In a recent meditation, Richard Rohr writes, “Gospel holiness…is almost entirely about receiving God’s free gift of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness.” Or to put it another way in another tradition, “We don’t need to look outside of the present moment to find inner peace and contentment; when experienced with awareness, everything becomes a source of joy,” according to Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche.

This sounds great but can be frustrating because there’s nothing we can do to make ourselves happy or become who we want to be once and for all. We are more than anything else receptors, and the best we can do is attune ourselves to the divine frequency, a station that only plays in the present moment.

“I am a hole in a flute that the Christ’s breath moves through,” says the Sufi poet Hafiz. When we allow that music to flow through us, our actions become notes in the divine song—natural expressions of our true selves. I suspect this receiving and giving is better than chocolate cake.

What Is the Use of Worrying?

It’s amazing how right spiritual teachers and traditions can be even when I’ve spent years thinking they were wrong. Take for example this whole idea that we create much of our own suffering. My evolving relationship to this truth has gone from “Yeah right, did you miss war, famine, etc.?” to “Well maybe so” to “Well would you look at that.”

I did not have to look far this week. I was attempting to stuff my purse and my lunch bag into a drawer at work, but they didn’t fit. I wanted to make a cup of tea and get some items checked off the list. I pushed harder on the unyielding bags and thought, oh come on, I don’t need this. Then it dawned on me that I was creating the problem. The drawer was not getting any bigger no matter how much I wanted to put more stuff into it.

Whether or not I accepted it, reality wasn’t changing. The drawer’s solid, physical existence made it clear how silly we are to resist what is.

It was a small, insignificant event, but as Richard Rohr says, “How you do anything is how you do everything.” My resistance to the limitations of three-dimensional space is mirrored in so many aspects of my life: trying to do too many things in a day, wanting other people to act a certain way, wishing I could do things the way other people do them. The list goes on.

In all of these situations, I tend to react with frustration, worry, or some other form of resistance rather than acceptance. In The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama cites the teaching of Shantideva, an eighth century Buddhist scholar who said, “If you can solve your problem, then what is the need of worrying? If you cannot solve it, then what is the use of worrying?”

We skip looking at what’s happening and go straight to worry, or at least I do. Until we accept the situation instead of fighting with it, we can’t even determine whether or not change is possible through some effort on our part.

Sometimes we can change our circumstances, and sometimes we can’t. Until we see what they are instead of what we want them to be, we’ll never know.

The Best We Can Do

Sometimes, we have little alternative but to watch ourselves do stupid things, such as practice anxiety, to pick a random example that couldn’t possibly have happened to me this week. At these moments—or days, weeks, months—it’s helpful to remember that watching is so much better than turning our eyes away.

Tuesday morning I realized at 7:17 that I needed to give Tux, my cat, his new hairball medication. Catching the vanpool requires leaving the house by 7:18. Trying to hurry, I got the gel in his fur and on his whiskers and of course missed the van anyway. That evening, preparing to give him another dose, I read the label more carefully: administer ½ tsp. once daily, meaning the entire morning escapade had been unnecessary.

Usually, I would have laughed at myself, but not this time. For unknown reasons, much of what I had done during the week had appeared in my mind doomed to failure—earth-shattering failure, not just any ol’ run of the mill failure—and this imagined imminent demise had buried my sense of humor.

I’ve been reading The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and so I tried during these days to take their advice on how to cultivate joy. Over and over, I expanded my perspective and tried to have compassion for others who, like me, thought it important to mess with their own minds, or people with more serious problems, such as hunger or war. Then I forgot. Then I practiced gratitude. Then I forgot.

Breathing exercises, energy exercises—nothing prevented me from jumping back onto the mental hamster wheel of fear. But by some grace, I saw my mental gymnastics and didn’t mistake them for reality.

The universe does come through if we wait long enough. This week, help arrived in the form of this email from my mom: “When I search boat toilets, I only get boat rentals. When I search portable toilets, I get large porta-potties. When I search bedside toilets, I can’t find any rentals. When I search sr. incontinence, I get Depends.”

And then, in the immortal words of Paul Simon, nothing was different but everything changed. I laughed. Out loud. By myself. In looking for a portable toilet to take camping, we’d discovered an entire world of waste products, all but the one we needed. Thank God for the dependability of bathroom humor amidst the impermanence of all things.

Seeing Clearly

I got my first pair of glasses about a week ago. So far, it’s not a love affair.

Perhaps it’s the anti-glare coating, but I’m always aware that there’s a layer between me and what I’m seeing. This is so often the case when I relate to other people as well. I automatically and instantaneously put the lens of my idea of who they are between us. This prescription does not improve my sight.

We’re invited into a very different gaze when viewing an icon. In that practice, as I understand it, the viewer looks at the icon until she somehow passes through it, until she is no longer looking solely at the painting but also at the spiritual reality that it represents, or perhaps more exactly embodies.

I looked up icon, and its root means “likeness, image.” So we are icons of God, made in God’s image and likeness. The reality that we embody is God. Which means this is true for our fellow human beings as well, even the ones we consider difficult.

My glasses are mild progressives, and I keep trying to figure out which part of the lens to look through for what distance. My boss told me that my eyes will find the right place automatically if I stop thinking about it.

Meditating on an icon is not a matter of thought. It must be a matter of connection, of recognition—God within us recognizing the divine that is present in every creation, whether God’s Creation or our works of art, our feats of engineering, our scientific discoveries.

If we could look at ourselves and each other the way we look at a sculpture that blows us away or a flowering jacaranda tree whose purple flowers stop us in our tracks, if we could pause and let that whatever-it-is within each of us connect, we might be astonished at our own beauty.

All That’s Happening

On Tuesday morning, after a long weekend of mostly solitude—more Netflix-watching solitude than holiness-in-a-cave solitude—I remembered to pray that my day’s work would contribute to the incarnation of God, an idea found in the Camaldoli oblate rule. The prayer reminded me that even while doing my job, I exist not primarily to get things done but rather to manifest God’s presence in the world.

Then on Wednesday I forgot all about it. As a friend said recently, imperfection is a…pain.

But imperfection is part of the deal, part of life, part of the practice. “Enter your practice until all of life is your practice,” Jim Finley says. What exactly are we practicing? Finley again: “Assuming the stance with the least resistance to being overtaken by God.” Because all that’s ever really happening is union with God, though we spend most of our lives not-so-blissfully unaware.

I’m not saying that there’s nothing more important than our relationship with the Divine; I’m saying that there’s nothing else period. Everything belongs to that relationship, as Richard Rohr often says. All the intractable limitations that I mistakenly think define me—they are part of the practice.

I don’t know how to include hatred and violence in this reality of belonging. Including them is not an argument for their continuation, but change doesn’t happen by exclusion; it happens by engagement. Plenty of terrible things we wish didn’t exist do, both internally and externally. How can we welcome actions and situations that are so clearly wrong?

Perhaps it helps to see that the most violent places are the hurting places, to know that, to one extent or another, every human being carries a wound. Physical wounds don’t heal by ignoring them, and neither will spiritual ones. Maybe we can grant our most difficult moments the same grace I attempted to grant my work, the possibility of being the presence of God in the world. Maybe that’s how healing happens. Maybe that’s redemption.

Loving Our Failures

I saw a man at a bus stop this week trying to look as if he chose to be there, and I thought, how much time and energy do I spend maintaining that “everything’s OK, nothing to see here” front?

Nadia Bolz Weber in her book Accidental Saints says that we live in a society that only loves winners. In that society, we must ride the bus as a preference, not because we can’t afford a car. That would make us unlovable. In that society, we will be deserted if we fail, and the norms of that society are alive and well in my brain.

This mindset guarantees a life of fear because as long as we’re human, we are going to fail. We’re even going to fail at the same thing over and over again despite our best intentions. I certainly do, and I avoid looking at those failures because they terrify me, because part of me believes that whoever sees them will walk away and never come back.

The first thing to do when petrified in this way is to read this article from The Onion because it is true and on topic and funny, and it’s hard to be afraid while you’re laughing. The second is to consider surrendering, which may initially kick the fear up a notch. I tend to picture my post-surrender life as oppressive, but we’re raising the white flag not to an enemy but to a God who loves us, a God we can entrust with our failures without dreading abandonment, a God who gives life and freedom.

A little anxiety might be reasonable, though, because with surrender comes greater vulnerability. God doesn’t suddenly transform us into the faultless person we’ve always known we could be. Instead we are opened more and more to our own shortcomings, to our and others’ humanity. We let go of needing to appear on top of it and paradoxically find that, even in the midst of failure, we are much more than OK—we are loved.